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“Obstinate Misdiagnosis”

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Sycamore Trust board member @MaryRiceHasson notes in @FirstThingsMag that #McCarrick affair reflects a misdiagnosis in Rome's limiting agenda to abuse of minors. Click To Tweet

The soul of the Catholic Church is being pierced, day after day, by a seemingly endless scandal of sexual abuse. And it must be hoped that, as many secret thoughts—and temptations, and, worst of all, actions—are being revealed, this piercing is an unavoidable and necessary part of a great process of purification: the purification that is essential if the Church is to preach the gospel credibly and offer that friendship with Jesus Christ that is the greatest of human liberations. As these LETTERS have insisted, and as will be argued again below by Mary Rice Hasson, the reform of the Church is a summons to greater fidelity, for the abuse crisis is, at bottom, a crisis of infidelity. 


Letters From The Vatican: #5

Reports and Commentary, From Rome and Elsewhere, on The “Meeting For The Protection of Minors.”

Edited by Xavier Rynne II | Saturday, February 23, 2019


Obstinate Misdiagnosis

by Mary Rice Hasson

(Reprinted with permission from First Things, copyright reserved.)

Modern popes describe the Church as an “expert in humanity.” So why has this “expert in humanity” so often failed to grasp the human failings at the heart of the clergy sexual abuse crisis? It’s not because the Church has failed to “initiate processes,” as Pope Francis says, or to define and share “best practices,” as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has done. (Crux describes the Commission’s “signature success” as its work helping bishops’ conferences around the world adopt best practices.) And Pope Francis kicked off this week’s Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse in a global perspective with “21 points” full of concrete proposals. 

The abuse crisis remains an open, bleeding wound in the side of the Church because the Church’s leadership continues to misdiagnose the problem. Restoring the hierarchy’s credibility—and the Church’s moral authority—starts with a reality check: The Church has a sexual abuse crisis, not (for example) an embezzlement crisis or a clericalism crisis or a management crisis. This is a crisis of faith, fidelity, and sexual integrity. It can’t be fixed with narrowly tailored prescriptions for better governance and procedures.

Misdiagnoses can be deadly. Surgeons are masterful at stitching up wounds—but the bleeding won’t stop, and the patient will die, if the correct cause of the bleeding is not diagnosed first. Writing in La Civiltà Cattolica a few days before the start of the Vatican meeting he is chairing, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S. J., made a similar point, saying that the meeting’s success—and the restoration of the Church’s credibility—requires “the discernment of the roots of evil in order to effectively combat and extirpate these roots.” 

But is the Vatican on the right track? In a December 2018 piece for La Civiltà Cattolica, Lombardi chronicles the “recent history of the issue of sexual abuse in the Church, the different phases it has been through, and the ways the recent popes have responded.” He traces the history in the U.S., including the McCarrick case, the efforts to revise canonical norms (especially under Pope Benedict XVI), the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the tangible results from new Vatican offices created to educate and assist countries in developing and implementing new guidelines, and new juridical and pastoral documents issued by Pope Francis, addressing bishops’ transgressions and the global nature of the crisis. According to Lombardi, Pope Francis envisions the Church taking a more expansive, global role in the protection of minors, “well beyond the ‘internal’ questions of its institutions, to stretch beyond confessional barriers to the widest horizons, to promote protection in the world of today with all its problems…” (Quite a goal for a Church that has yet to get its own house in order.)

Considered objectively, these efforts are good and necessary. But the bird’s-eye view reveals a Church in reactive mode, responding incrementally, still unwilling to see the problem for what it is. This is the direct result of defining the problem by a category of victims instead of “the roots of the evil.”

The inadequacy of the focus on minors

Like a laser beam focused on a single tumor, the Vatican has stubbornly insisted that clergy sexual abuse of minors is a stand-alone problem, and it has been the only topic under discussion at this week’s abuse summit. But metastatic cancer has never been cured by targeting just one tumor. This arbitrary line-drawing relegates everything but the abuse of minors to the perimeter—the sexual abuse of seminarians, vulnerable adults (with impaired reason), religious sisters, and adult women, as well as the problem of clergy “consensual” sexual activity with adults—as if the evil at work could be counted on to respect the Vatican’s neat and tidy categories. Those involved in planning the February summit claimed that getting the abuse-of-minors problem fixed would have spillover effects in addressing other forms of sexual abuse and misconduct. That remains to be seen (as the abuse-of-minors scandal remains to be fully addressed). But it’s worth asking if the Church’s “minors only” approach has been unduly influenced by the views of outside experts on child abuse. For within the secular professions the bright line that separates a minor from an adult imposes its own secular pseudo-morality: on the minor’s side of the age divide, sex with adults is abuse; on the adult side of the line, sex with any adult (male or female), of any kind (no matter how kinky) is “morally” neutral, assuming it is consensual.

This blinkered view—conceptualizing the problem by the identity of the victim—prevents the Vatican from identifying the roots of the problem and the best remedies for resolving it. 

One glaring exemplar of the Vatican’s wrong-headed approach is Theodore McCarrick. In 2017, the allegation that McCarrick had abused a minor finally triggered the right alarm bells at the Vatican. Because the identity of the victim—a minor—finally fell within the Vatican’s carefully circumscribed boundaries, it was time for resolute action. But McCarrick was suspected to be a bad actor for years before allegations surfaced that he had abused a minor. Not for him the bright line between “minors” and those victims on the perimeter. (I’m willing to bet that his behavior was not unique, in that respect, among abusers. After all, these men by definition don’t abide by others’ boundaries very well.)

The widely-circulated rumors of McCarrick’s homosexual harassment and abuse of seminarians should have triggered a thorough investigation and a resolute response from the Vatican. Why didn’t they? Were seminarians the wrong victim class? Did a priest sexually pursuing other adult males merit a special carve-out, an exception, in spite of the Church’s teaching on homosexual behavior—and McCarrick’s vow of celibacy? Didn’t anyone in the hierarchy worry that McCarrick’s sexual habits with adults would undermine his priestly and episcopal missions? These questions are likely to go unanswered. And the hierarchy’s influential friends remain on message that the abuse crisis is mainly a problem of minors. Thus when news broke that McCarrick had been laicized, Fr. James Martin, S. J., was immediately on script, tweeting about McCarrick’s abuse of minors—and ignoring his abuse of seminarians.

Sexual integrity and fidelity

If Church leaders fail to acknowledge that the roots of this crisis—failures of faith, fidelity, and sexual integrity—are common to all forms of sexual abuse and misconduct, then this crisis is nowhere near over. The sexual abuse of minors is truly evil. When children are abused, our hearts rightly cry out for justice because of the horror of it all. But the toxic climate of sexual self-indulgence, secrecy, and lack of integrity that enables the sexual victimization of little boys and girls also enables the sexual victimization of teenagers (predominately male), seminarians, religious sisters, and adult women. It fuels the sexual exploitation of “consensual” partners as well.

Applying the secular language of “consenting adults” to clergy sexual activity with adults is, we should note, another import from secular scripts—and it has no place in a discussion of Catholic morality. Those who are reluctant to condemn clergy “consensual” sexual activity ignore the truth that all non-marital sexual activity involves using another person for personal gratification. It is inherently exploitative. (One has to wonder whether bishops who seem to shrug at clergy sexual activity with adults, distinguishing it as “consensual” sexual activity, implicitly accept the secular standard of “consent” as the only appropriate criteria for judging the morality of sexual activity between adults.)

A clerical culture that winks at—and covers for—clergy sexual activity with adults creates a culture where sexual secrets are the norm and there is room for sexual vice of all sorts. It becomes a culture of infidelity, corrosive of personal integrity. Pastors or bishops who turn a blind eye to priests habitually viewing pornography, using “gay hookup” apps on their smart phones, or sexually harassing younger priests or seminarians practice a false mercy: Sins that go unnamed often vanish—in the mind of the sinner at least. A sinner who has grown comfortable in serious sexual sin will minimize, rename, or even valorize his sin in order to keep it—that’s true of all of us. But when a priest or bishop resolves the conflict between his sins and the Church’s teachings by fashioning his own alternative morality, his pastoral ministry also suffers, further harming the Body of Christ.

So how can the Church begin to restore its credibility? Members of the hierarchy must lead by example, recommitting themselves to sexual integrity, fidelity to the Church’s teachings, and humble service to the Church. If our bishops lack the will to live out the Church’s teachings on sexuality in their own lives, to preach the Church’s vision of integral sexuality and the moral norms that flow from it, and to demand integrity and accountability from their priests and brother bishops, then all the “best practices” in the world will not fix what ails us.


Mary Rice Hasson, who holds the JD from the University of Notre Dame, is the director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she is also the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in Catholic Studies. She and her husband Seamus, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, have seven children.




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10 Responses to ““Obstinate Misdiagnosis””

  1. John F.Lushis Jr June 8, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    Sadly, clergy abuse of minors has occurred for decades and has been covered up for decades. Perhaps having the governance of Notre Dame transferred to a lay board more than 50 years ago was, in retrospect, a very wise decision Moreover; the Vatican hierarchy has been corrupt for many decades. Notre Dame has been more Catholic than Rome has at times.

  2. John McNamara '86 February 28, 2019 at 8:29 pm

    First, congratulations-if that is the proper word under these terrible circumstances- to the Sycamore Trust and Notre Dame Student government leaders in finally getting John Jenkins to rescind Theodore McCarrick’s honorary degree from Notre Dame. It’s a shame Jenkins had to be dragged to that point, resisting all the way.

    I like Dr. Hasson’s article, but I think the concluding paragraph is a bit naive and hopeful, particularly in light of a particularly strong second-to-last paragraph. The people described in the second-to-last paragraph aren’t going to come around and do the right thing, short of seeing several of their peers being laicized and imprisoned and donations to their dioceses drastically diminished. Seriously. This is going to be a festering wound in the Church for a long time, until there’s a new pope strong enough to act decisively and several convicted bishops and cardinals sitting in jail. You can see it at Notre Dame with the refusal to revoke McCarrick’s degree and the recent homosexual Catholic seminar at Notre Dame, where some pretty questionable theological authorities were going to speak and probably encourage homosexual students to follow something other than official Catholic doctrine. Let’s thoughtfully minister to homosexuals, but let’s follow official Church doctrine, not “alternative morality” as Dr. Hasson describes it and which she disapproves. The Church is supposed to be in the morality business, but sitting around doing nothing when Andrew Cuomo legalizes infanticide and paying surrogate mothers to deliver babies like goods sold at market in New York, is a complete surrender of the pro-life movement, which the Catholic Church started in the 1960’s. Now it is most effectively championed by born-again evangelicals, not our cowardly, ethically compromised and morally lost Catholic prelates.

    I recommend watching the following videos pn the website “Church Militant” in the following order:
    “The Vortex: Pope Francis Guilty of Cover Up” (which details Francis’ cover up history in South America);
    “The Vortex: Summit of Lies”;
    “Vatican Sex Summit Report: Day One” (interesting background and allegations regarding McCarrick);
    “The Vortex: Uncle Ted Case NOT Closed”; and
    “The Vortex: You Bet It’s Personal” (a message poignantly describing the victims of the Church scandal, a message to stand by the Church and for lay people to be more active cleaning things up, which is what will be required before Dr. Hasson’s last paragraph takes place, hopefully).
    No, I don’t work for Church Militant, and I don’t know anyone who works there, but I have found it very informative, particularly in a limited market of info on the Church scandals and for some great videos on Church history.

    I wish Dr. Hasson had discussed the content of “Pope Francis Guilty of Cover Up” and “Vatican Sex Summit Report: Day One”. Perhaps she can do so in another article.

  3. I agree with Peter McCue. But has anyone considered that there are other factors to be considered. Such as
    Memoirs of the Communist Infiltration into the Church, AA-1025 Revealed by Marie Carre’. And A Wolf in Sheep”s Clothing,
    an EWTN Home Video.

  4. I BELIEVE BISHOP DARCY HAD IT RIGHT ALL ALONG. HIS FIRST RESPONSE HAS ALWAYS BEEN TO LOOK INTO HOMOSEXUAL BEHAVIOR. HE HAS BEEN SOMEWHAT IGNORED BY NOTRE DAME AND I HAVE LOST A LOT OF RESPECT FOR THAT SEEMINGLY WORLDLY ATTITUDE. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY THEY CONSIDER IT A CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY WHEN THE PRECEPTS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ARE NOT PRACTICED.

    • Homosexual Behavior obviously played a role in the heinous abuse crisis, the bullying and sexual harassment of seminarians at various Seminaries and the cover up that allowed the heinous crimes to continue, as the majority of the perpetrators and victims were male.

      Our Call to Holiness, Is a Call to be chaste in our thoughts, in our words, and in our deeds.

      We can know through both our Catholic Faith and reason, that the desire to engage in a demeaning act of any nature, does not change the nature of the act.
      Thus identifying persons according to sexual desire/inclination/orientation, which necessarily sexually objectifies the human person, and denies their inherent Dignity as a beloved son or daughter, does not change the fact that a same-sex sexual attraction, is, as Pope Benedict XVI stated, a disordered inclination not a disordered person.

      All Same-sex sexual acts, and thus same-sex sexual relationships, because they necessarily deny the Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Matrimony, are a violation of God’s Commandment regarding lust and the sin of adultery, and thus, “are always a violation of Divine and Natural Law”. A same-sex sexual relationship, because it lacks complementarity, and thus coherence, can never be reconciled with God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

      God, Who Has Created us with an Intellect and a Will, Desires that we desire to overcome our disordered inclinations, and become transformed through accepting Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And Mercy, as we develop healthy and Holy relationships and friendships that are grounded in authentic life affirming and life sustaining Love, and thus respectful of ourselves and others, in private as well as in public.

      Still, it is not The Faithful who are guilty of denying “the respect, compassion, and sensitivity due”, to those persons who desire to overcome their disordered same-sex sexual attractions, “and are called to fulfill God’s Will in their lives”- that all persons experience authentic Salvational Love, no, it is those who insist that a disordered same-sex sexual attraction is “the very deepest part of their being”, unreachable from “That Light That Shines In The Darkness”, The Power And The Glory Of God’s Transforming Love.

  5. “Misdiagnoses can be deadly.” True.
    When you exchange The Truth about God for a lie beginning with Genesis, thus denying that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, then necessarily “It becomes clear that when God is denied, human Dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.” – Pope Benedict XVI, who, having been a validly elected Pope, still retains his authority regarding Faith and morals, consistent with The One Deposit Of Faith. (Address Of His Holiness Benedict XVI On The Occasion Of Christmas Greetings To The Roman Curia, Clementine Hall, Friday, 21 December, 2012)

    Nothing can be more deadly than exchanging Truth for a lie, then at The Beginning; Truth begets Truth, error begets error.

    “Caritas In Veritate; Veritas In Caritate”, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. Amen.

    With Thanks and Gratitude for all you do for Holy Mother Church and Our Lady’s University

  6. I wonder if the bishops would consider adultery consensual?

  7. I wonder if the bishops would condone adultery as consensual?

  8. I agree with Dr. Hasson. I would have gone farther and suggested (demanded?) that a hierarchy condoning such immoral activity be replaced immediately. Those who may think this a bit harsh need only look at how long this has been going on. They have had more than enough time and opportunities for “repentance” and “reforming”. If they don’t love the Church and ALL of her teachings, it’s beyond time to GO!.

  9. R. Thomas Forr,Jr. February 27, 2019 at 7:08 pm

    Thank you for addressing the real problem within the Church. Now we need more than a few of the Bishops to speak out about the issue of homosexuality in the Priesthood.

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